Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540
To understand the meaning of “Exposure,” and indeed of all of Owen’s poetry, it is necessary to turn to his own words: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity.” Owen’s desire to convey the pity of war led him to the antipoetic devices that make his work so powerful. The particular pity conveyed in “Exposure” is the irony of dying of exposure to the elements rather than “the monstrous anger of the guns.” Thoughtful students of World War I may realize that many died of cold and disease, but Owen is correct in supposing that these mundane, though no less tragic, ways to die are lost in the heroic jingoism of most wars. Bullets are hot and searing, while cold is dehumanizing. The aching brains of the dying cannot understand why nothing is happening, why they are where they are, and why God seems present only in “His frost,” not his love; the befuddled questioning of the fifth lines of each stanza mirrors the confusion of a brain slowly freezing to death.
Unlike English poets Sir Philip Sidney or Percy Bysshe Shelley, Owen does not see poets as teachers or “unacknowledged legislators.” He says, “all a poet can do today is warn; that is why the True Poets must be truthful.” Owen strives for the aching cold of truthfulness in “Exposure” as the poem exposes the reader to the cold indifference of nature and nature’s God.
Stanzas 7 and 8 deal specifically with Owen’s view of God’s role in death by exposure. Owen came to mistrust the dogmas of national churches, finding solace only in the role of Christ, a passive emblem of love who gives his life for his friends just as soldiers often die for their comrades. Owen’s poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre” explores the role of Christ in the war, but “Exposure” appears loveless and Christless. Owen’s poetic mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, also reflects skepticism toward the warlike nature of the church’s God and his indifference to the plight of the soldier. Sassoon encouraged Owen to tell the truth of the pitiless nature of the nationalistic God in poetry such as “Exposure,” which frankly blasphemes conventional pieties.
“Exposure” is not one of Owen’s best-known poems, but it is surely one of his bleakest. The unrelieved cold and misery of the freezing soldiers are contrasted with the warmth of the home front, a home front that cannot imagine and chooses not to see their pain, offering instead a platitudinous God for comfort; the soldiers’ real God “will fasten on this mud and [them],/ Shrivellingpuckering,” and ultimately killing with no pity. The pity of “Exposure” is the pity of indifference: the indifference of nature, of the home front, of God, and of the soldiers themselves, who are “not loath” to freeze into the icy destiny to which they were born. At the end of the poem, the staring eyes of the dead convey the icy indifference of men for whom the world knew no pity. In “Exposure,” Wilfred Owen’s dead-eyed soldiers lie frozen as a warning to an indifferent world of the horror of war.